Citizens United and the Campaign Finance Crisis

Citizens United v. FEC was a 2010 Supreme Court case that overturned key provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2003. The Court’s decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, allowed unions and corporations to make unlimited political donations. It also held that such unlimited contributions from these groups and from individuals are acceptable because, in the Court’s view, they do not inappropriately influence elected officials’ policy decisions. We disagree.

Citizens United has quickly taken a toll on American politics. Recently, members of Congress from both parties blamed their grueling “telemarketing”-style fundraising calls on Citizens United.[1] The money comes from just a few mega-donors – thus far, over 40 percent of money raised by Super PACs in 2016 has come from just 50 donors.[2] These donors’ priorities do not reflect those of most Americans. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut once noted that “I talked a lot more about [the] carried interest [tax break for Wall Street fund managers] inside of that call room than I did in the supermarket.”[3] The need to raise big dollars from big donors deeply skews politicians’ policies and directs them away from the concerns of most Americans. 

Today, money dominates American politics – and it is clear that Citizens United is responsible. “Not since the Gilded Age has our politics been opened so wide to corporate money and donations from secret sources,” wrote James Bennet in The Atlantic.[4] As campaign finance expert Rick Hasen says, we now live in “a system in which economic inequalities… are transformed into political inequalities that affect both electoral and legislative outcomes.”[5] We live with the consequences of those inequalities every day. From the gun lobby’s push to keep common-sense gun control laws off the books to fossil fuel companies’ attempt to block policies that will combat climate change, special interests and billionaires are influencing our political system to work in their own best interests – not for the good of all Americans. 

The rise and danger of ‘outside spending’

Citizens United‘s removal of contribution limits for outside groups created a huge opening for these billionaires and corporations to influence elections. Unsurprisingly, these outside groups’ spending has skyrocketed. The most recent data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that with over 7 months to go before Election Day, the $344 million in outside spending thus far has exceeded all outside spending from the 2008 election.[6] Outside spending this year will shatter all previous records – and the money is increasingly coming from unknown or suspicious sources.

In the Citizens United era, campaign finance laws are rarely enforced by the government agencies tasked with preserving them. “Dark money” nonprofit groups regularly spend unlimited, undisclosed cash, despite regulations that limit such spending.[7] Anonymous shell corporations can donate to these groups or to Super PACs, despite another long-standing law banning anonymous donations.[8] One such “ghost corporation” turned out to be owned by a foreign company.[9] Such groups could donate unlimited amounts of money to dark money nonprofits, and Americans might never find out that their elections had been swayed by a foreign agenda. In April 2016, Republicans pushed a Koch network-backed bill that would remove the last layer of oversight over this loophole through the House Ways and Means Committee on a party-line vote.[10]

The solution: Overturn Citizens United

There have been other court cases that have similarly undermined or broken key aspects of our campaign finance system. They, too, must be addressed through legislation and through the court system as well. But Citizens United is both the strongest modern root and the most powerful symbol of the problem, and it is breaking our democracy.

Americans of every political persuasion understand that Citizens United is at the core of the problem. In a Bloomberg poll from September 2015, 78% of Americans said that the law should be overturned.[11] But the same money that has broken the legislative process has also motivated Congress not to act.

That’s where we come in. End Citizens United knows that change won’t happen without electing committed reformers. That’s why we’re proud to support pro-campaign finance reform Democrats – because those Democrats have stood up and demanded that our democracy be saved.

[1]Are Members of Congress becoming telemarketers?” Norah O’Donnell, CBS News, 04/24/16

[2]The new Gilded Age: Close to half of all Super PAC money comes from 50 donors.” Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy, The Washington Post, 04/15/16

[3]Opening address by Sen. Chris Murphy for the Yale ISPS conference on money in politics.” 06/19/13

[4]The new price of American politics.” James Bennet, The Atlantic, 10/2012

[5] Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, The Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections. Richard L. Hasen, Yale University Press: 2016, p. 9

[6]Outside spending by cycle, excluding party committees – cycle total.” The Center for Responsive Politics, accessed 05/09/16

[7]I.R.S. expected to stand aside as nonprofits increase role in 2016 race.” Eric Lichtblau, The New York Times, 07/05/15

[8]How ‘ghost corporations’ are funding the 2016 election.” Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy, The Washington Post, 03/18/16

[9]Canadian firm’s mega-donation to Super PAC raises ‘legal red flags.’” Michael Beckel, The Center for Public Integrity, 10/05/12

[10]House panel moves bill to ban IRS from tracking donors to tax-exempt groups.” Naomi Jagoda, The Hill, 04/28/16

[11]Bloomberg poll: Americans want Supreme Court to turn off political spending spigot.” Greg Stohr, Bloomberg, 09/28/15

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